Designing the Slate meant turning the incredible disruptive potential of iskn technology into something tangible.

As head of Inconito Design Studio and artistic director of Petzl, Christophe Chedal Anglay came to iskn with 25 years of experience in high-end technical product design and his valuable network of partner companies. We met in Grenoble on July 6, 2015, for a long discussion about the birth of the Slate and his collaboration with iskn.

What was iskn’s initial brief for the Slate?

There was no brief in the typical sense of the word. When we began working together, we were still very far from the Slate concept. What iskn presented to me was a technology—a technology with incredible disruptive potential in how Christophe Chedal Anglay - citation 1_GBit interacts with the digital world. We had to make this potential tangible by creating an initial object that could clearly show a usage scenario and begin to pique the user’s interest. At first, I didn’t fully grasp all of the challenges of this technology, which is still evolving. But the idea was extremely attractive: directly digitizing whatever you draw on regular paper with an ordinary pen, without an intermediary. The main difference between this and a Wacom-style tablet is that with iskn technology you draw on paper. Above all, you do it with a real drawing tool—not a stylus, which is basically just an enhanced mouse. That spoke to me right from the beginning, because I believe that what fundamentally appeals to people about digitizing drawing is using the same gestures. Iskn technology fully captures these gestures, just like when you draw on a sketchpad, and with the same precision.

Concretely, how did you work with iskn to come up with an initial design?

With iskn, I sort of invented a different way for designers to help startups. It’s a more iterative and responsive process than the traditional one, where an outside firm comes in with three or four proposals based on a well-structured brief and a marketing plan. Christophe Chedal Anglay - citation 2_GBThere wasn’t anything like that at iskn back then! I suggested that the team move forward without a brief and work in an iterative way. The goal was to produce a visual to show users, get feedback from them to improve upon the proposal, and ultimately, come up with an actual brief. This back-and-forth approach suits me, and today it’s how I like to work with established companies. More and more, I want to work in teams and with teams, and bring in the design very far upstream, which is a break from the traditional process. A startup is the ideal place to do that. Developing a brief collaboratively brings everything together. There’s a design right from the start.

How did the first sketch come about?

During conversations with iskn, possible usage scenarios and forms came to mind. I very quickly fleshed out the one that seemed the best to me, the one I had envisioned from our very first discussions: the image of a sheet of paper that moves slightly like drapery, and a slim object that could be placed inside a notebook. Christophe Chedal Anglay - citation 3_GBThat was the initial goal and I drew the first prototype in half a day. The first drawing does a good job of showing the slimness and lightness of a sheet of paper. Clearly, the electronic components that we had at first didn’t allow the object to slide between two sheets of paper… We had to build the first version of the product like a traditional prototype, since during that phase of development we didn’t have access to any industrial production tools. In any case, that first tangible version gave us something to show people, but we were only halfway there. The other half was the Pen! I had said very early on to the iskn team, “We won’t come up with anything really good unless we work on the tablet and pen as a pair.” We had to think about the type of drawing tool we wanted to develop, and do so as quickly as possible since the Kickstarter campaign was already approaching!

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Christophe’s very early scketches

The first prototype doesn’t look anything like the iSketchnote product presented for the Kickstarter campaign… Does that mean there was a second prototype?

Yes, and it had a more specific brief this time. Thanks to the first prototype, iskn was able to determine what type of person the product should target. Kickstarter was a way for us to do a live test on that target group; they were sketchnoters. This was a clever move on iskn’s part because sketchnoters have a graphic, formal, design-based style that’s very distinctive. The way they draw and use language is somewhat “encoded,” in terms of the colors they choose, the thickness of the lines, etc. Christophe Chedal Anglay - citation 4_GBThey use a certain type of pen and have a favorite medium: the sketchpad. All of these elements converged to form an image that I could turn into a real brief. The object I drew was an intelligent cover for an iPad, with an explicit reference to Moleskine notebooks.

The current Slate was taking shape, but it wasn’t quite there yet. It really came into being once the team, in response to requests from Kickstarter backers, decided to remove the technology from the iPad cover and make it a separate object: a slate. It was like a slate for schoolchildren, with a black writing surface and a very minimalistic color frame. Iskn presented this second prototype at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January 2014—it was another opportunity to get opinions, and after the CES, we refined the design in order to move on to the production phase.

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Christophe working on the Slate project in February 2014

In this third phase, the priority was to introduce iskn language by deliberately removing any references to Apple products. At the same time we reinforced the concept of a slate by having two things: the slate gray color and, despite the technical constraints on thickness, the idea of slimness. To achieve that, I used beveled edges to give the illusion of a slim design. When you turn the Slate over, you have a frame that is reminiscent of a traditional slate.

To be continued…